Category Archives: Memories

Oh yes, Kolkata!

Kolkata

I have visited Kolkata many times in the last few decades. Having been domiciled 10,000 miles away for over 20 years, for better or worse, it still is Kolkata — changed yet unmistakable! No more is it the Calcutta, reminiscent of British pomp and circumstance that I left a few years after Desmond Doig’s nostalgic Artist’s Impressions hit the scene! Although Kolkata prides itself of abundant artistic talent, I have yet to see sketches of the old city rendered with such sensitivity and flair. Desmond Doig was a brilliant writer, artist, and photographer. In those days, his work was featured in the prestigious National Geographic magazine, and for those who knew him professionally, a perfect gentleman! Mention should be made of his book on Mother Theresa, which gave the western world yet another glimpse of Kolkata’s outstanding missionary, thus deftly foisting her selfless image worldwide.

The Statesman then was blessed with indubitable talent, although the Junior Statesman could not survive the fast-changing realties of the market, or effectively position itself for a larger burgeoning mindset. Doig was its anonymous guardian angel. Realities aside, Desmond Doig’s charisma and charm won him many young friends, especially those who wanted to have a say on his juvenile forum. I remember doing a regular cartoon column then Fun with Shyamol, and occasional cover illustrations for the young magazine. Given his warmth and encouragement, one even summed up enough courage (I was barely in final year college then, and timid by nature) to contribute a few short pieces on Mondays for the elder Statesman’s Calcutta Notebook.

The Editor’s offices in those days bore an austere, foreboding look. Even the newspaper building carried an imposing post-Raj elegance, notwithstanding the busy factory-like hum on the lower floors of a daily newspaper tirelessly trying to set the record straight, and presumably setting journalistic standards too in the process!

On and off center

Men like Doig constitute the fond memory of a frenetic city that has undergone sweeping changes. In those days, when there were no flyovers, shopping malls, or the Metro Railway, and tramcars still seemed to welcome a breezy ride along the Maidans… rattling merrily past the stretching green fields that was home to so many of Kolkata’s popular sporting clubs. Not to speak of the Monument (long since renamed Shahid Minar), Eden Gardens, Victoria Memorial, the Planetarium, Calcutta Race Course, and of course, Fort William. My suspicion is: Pleasure co-mingles with pain, and those tramcars even enjoyed the dirt and incessant bustle of Kolkata’s busy streets, much like a cow’s tail tolerates obstinate flies swooping in on its wounds. Inexorably bound by fate to stay within its tracks; draw sustenance from electrified overhead wires; clang ever so gently to erring traffic; its easy pace, where hopping on and off didn’t appear life-threatening; even the unassuming but comfortable wooden seats in second class make Kolkata’s tramcar worthy of restoration. Not just for old times sake, but for living history! Which other Indian city can boast of such an unique, leisurely transport?

Most modern cities are concrete jungles, but it’s only in India that, despite its teeming millions, you see both the unspoken harmony and law of the jungle prevailing. Long live human nature! The Lakes along Southern Avenue that were once a welcome haven from the cacophony and pollution of the city is a sorry portrait of its former self, with ubiquitous water hyacinth, overgrown weeds, submerged and floating refuse. Tell me, have they gotten rid of stray cows from Kolkata’s streets altogether? And, is the Assembly of Dirt closer now to Writer’s Building or to the Governor’s House?

And what about the khataals in Kolkata’s densely populated residential areas, particularly in the north and center? Their odorous offerings exposed to a sun-dried sun would eventually adorn many a wary landlord’s perimeter walls in the form of dung cakes, cooking fuel for the city’s poor. I personally think the ugly posters and brazen graffiti of local political zealots are far more offensive. Despite earnest attempts to steer a recalcitrant population into affordable pay booths created for that purpose, urinating on walls seem to accompany voting rights for many. If politicians and their ilk may with impunity deface those walls, why not the common public? Another instance of poetic justice, you might say, with suppressed ire.

Everything changes eventually

The old cinema halls have taken a beating too. Metro, Lighthouse, New Empire, Minerva, Elite, and Globe have undergone “see” changes (excuse the pun). The Tiger is now a shopping plaza! The famous eating establishments seem weather-beaten too, if not yet assigned to history by the economy’s capricious twists and turns. Remember Firpo’s, the bakery? Beg your pardon, turned into a commercial beehive, for whose benefit? On Chittaranjan Avenue, Chung Wah now hobbles like an old racehorse that had once seen better days. Some of the restaurants like Trinca’s, Blue Fox, Quality, Skyroom, Flury’s, Mocambo, and Moulin Rouge on Park Street (note: it’s a one-way street during office hours) still hang on for dear life. Competition is upstart and unsentimental. Big name hotels too have carved their niche — Taj Bengal, Peerless, Hyatt Regency, Sonar Bangla, you name it.

One thing that was conspicuously absent in Kolkata in those days was any restaurant worth it’s name that served typical Bengali fare — you could spend a whole month’s pay looking for one, 25 years ago! No more now. Now, you have more than a dozen names that mirror the tongue-in-cheek lyricism of the native Bengali — Sholo Anna Baangali, Tero Parban, Bhajo Hari Manna, Esho Bosho Ahare, Oh Calcutta!, and 6 Ballygunge Place (you can google and ogle at them from abroad too)! The gastronomic delights simply would put their names in lights, or is it just me — starved from crossing a cultural desert?

Change of course is inevitable, but difficult to stomach when it actually arrives. India’s, and Kolkata’s especially, rapid overpopulation is a shocker every time you visit the city until, like diabetes, falling hair, or fuel prices, you learn to live with it. Except for true beautification (that’s exactly what I mean), one can only hope they’ll leave the Maidans alone! The last time, did I see visible signs of human encroachment, or is it just my imagination and near-retirement intolerance that’s seeing things? You folks down there know better. Being far away and with imagination as my only crutch, I am and will be resigned to your fair judgment. But, like the tramcar, please stay on track, and for God’s sake, mind those auto rickshaws and mini-buses!

Shyam Bhatya

 The above article first appeared in The Statesman, Kolkata under “Perspectives” on March 26, 2010. Voice your opinion, vent your wrath, if you think Kolkata is going (or gone) to the dogs!

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It’s all in the game

Boarding school life has its fringe benefits and its fallout. I went to a boarding school in the Himalayan mountains for a good, long eight years. Here I was privy to the inside track, if you may. The grand old stone buildings, built to last several lifetimes, housed over 200 boarders. The school itself, some 6000 feet above sea level, found a permanent resting place high up in those massive green, brown, and white mountains we call the Himalayas. From our games field facing the main school building, we got a breathtaking view of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, on either side of which were close and distant siblings of the famous Mount Everest – fabled snow-capped mountain ranges that shone under a tie-and-dye sky of stunning color.

A waist-high stonewall bordered the top field, and approximately seventy feet down the steep hillside lay our lower field, where all major games were played. Games were compulsory for all boarders, and 200-meter races were run straight across the length! As boarders, we got to see most of our classroom teachers almost as often as we saw the cryptomaria trees that surrounded the campus. Such familiarity also bred mischief. We called our teachers by nicknames, instead of Mr. This and Mrs. That! (I am sure you had nicknames for your teachers too.)

What’s in a name?

Mr. Bimal Gurung comes first on my shortlist, not so obviously because of his height, which was challenged, but because of other attributes I will tell you about. When the weather got warm as it did around March and April, Mr. Gurung wore loose, flapping pants made of a strange silky material that allegedly whistled in the wind. This is why Mr. Gurung earned the nickname “Georgette Pants,” or later because of his piercing voice and body size, “Transistor.” You may not know this, but that was when inexpensive transistor radios had just hit the Indian market and were being carried around fondly by every Ram, Rahim, and Raghubir. Audio reception was outrageously poor and output metallic, sometimes very scratchy.

Another teacher, who had an equally shrill voice, was better known as “Black Beauty” because of the color of his skin, outstanding as it was on a sun-drenched games field. Later, not uncharacteristically, Black Beauty, although far from beautiful, went on to become Headmaster. Perseverance, not good looks, they say, is key to success. I have a thing about success, though. If it is propelled merely by an unabashed desire to get ahead, the unpopularity that comes in tow may be hard to shake off. Black Beauty was also derisively named “Shugrib” (from the epic Ramayana) — not something you’d call a popular teacher behind his back. To me, the latter name was quite appropriate because the science and math he taught always confronted me like warring monkeys.

Vicarious participant

Everybody called Mr. Choudhury, our games teacher, “Good Shot” for a good reason. Mr. Choudhury, despite his official designation, rarely entered the games field, which even as children, we innocuously presumed should have been his primary focus. Instead, he watched us play from the top field, once in a while yelling “Good Shot!” from above. His bulky six-foot frame was always sartorially correct, but flinging encouragements from high up was mostly what he did, in addition to living in a nicely-furnished apartment a stone’s throw away from the field, and collecting a decent salary largely by sniffing around the salubrious surroundings. On occasion, Good Shot would proudly sport a navy blue blazer that had the emblem of the Indian Olympic Swimming team, but to us kids that meant mighty little.

Good Shot could very well have been Mr. Malaprop too! Once, a group of us went up to him after a game to complain about the girls from our sister school calling us names. Occasionally a junior boys team would go over to the girls’ school to give their senior “first eleven” hockey practice. The girls’ team was pretty good; they had long been district champions. Good Shot listened to our varied complaints, and finally exclaimed, “Did you hear it with your own eyes?” Whether we heard with our own eyes or saw with our own ears, the issue was soon forgotten, for once again we looked forward  to playing hockey with the girls because the girls’ school always served scrumptious high tea!

Neither thinning hair nor an ostensible bald pate could spare our Art teacher, Mr. Roy the nickname “Paint Brush.” Quite a talented artist in his own right, he had this habit of swaying from side to side (an obvious lack of balance in many creative people, I am told) sometimes giving you the impression he was standing entirely on one leg. As he talked, he would lurch unpredictably like a paintbrush bent on leaving a lasting impression on canvas.

Both “Crocodile,” who taught Bengali while peering behind dark brown horn-rimmed glasses, and “Apache,” who taught History, were surprisingly docile, although any talk about achievements in history got the latter visibly agitated, as did tobacco snuff, which he pinched out of a little silver canister. There must have been other teachers with equally fanciful nicknames, but many of them were there before I joined school, or maybe after I left.

Heady heights

After my first year, the Scottish Headmaster who ruled with an iron fist left for greener pastures. The obvious choice then for Headmaster was K. A. Dowd because of his remarkable experience and seniority. Mr. Dowd was a brilliant English teacher and a wizard on the games field. To this day, I don’t know exactly why they called him “Choach.” I owe my interest in literature largely to this fascinating English teacher. Choach was also known to spin tall tales. He told us he had seen the Guns of Navarone with his own eyes during World War II, soon after the movie was screened in our Assembly Hall. He claimed to have fried eggs on the deck of his battleship while on a blistering mission in Africa. Despite some doubts about the veracity of these claims, Choach was always known to lead by example. So awe-inspiring were his batting skills, for instance, that never for a moment did we doubt his playing cricket for an English County or supposedly drinking beer with Sir Donald Bradman. He displayed equal dexterity on the soccer and hockey fields, so much so that, in our young eyes, K. A. Dowd was superhuman. As English teacher too, his classes were memorable.

The entire student population was divided into three houses named after a famous team of mountaineering heroes who had attempted Everest in the early 1900s. In early spring, Mr. Gurung would officiate as umpire in our inter-house cricket matches. He wore his usual georgette pants, which were quite a distraction, especially for the batsmen. The bowlers loved it because they had to put in little or no effort to bowl off breaks, leg breaks, googlies, cutters, or a variety of trick deliveries. Depending on which way and with what intensity the wind was blowing, Mr. Gurung’s pants would sway like curtains in Shah Jehan’s summer palace — thus turning batsmen bleary-eyed and bewildered. Some batsmen, understandably nervous, would even imagine a transistor playing in the background! Thankfully, Mr. Gurung ‘s dubious expertise was not called into play in our prestigious inter-school matches, where victory or defeat had aftereffects sometimes lasting weeks, even months. The school’s reputation was at stake, for often the girls from our sister school were invited to watch, thus making winning a matter of personal and collective honor.

Fruitful pursuit

I suspect Georgette Pants was not very well read, and therefore probably unaware of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous quote about how it is not important whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. The decisions he brought about on the cricket field taught us acceptance and sporting spirit in the face of all odds. In addition, Good Shot yelling from the top field inspired us to keep doing our best. Choach always lead by example, and stood out like a beacon to ships lost at sea. We put in our best efforts always; playing the game without laying the blame, no matter what the final results happened to be! The aforementioned teachers imparted subliminal messages that I am convinced stuck deep in our fertile minds.

Most teachers, whether in or out of school, help us build character. Georgette Pants, Good Shot, and especially Choach were responsible for inculcating an overriding sportsman-like ethic in all of us. Getting ahead was never as important as playing fair. Now, isn’t that what karma yogis teach us about life? Continue to do good work, and never – repeat never – focus on the fruit! Even when failure comes to greet you with open arms, you must keep on playing. Sometimes I wonder if this very attitude could steer our nation away from the selfishness and greed that is jeering us painfully behind our backs everyday.

Wishful thinking, I hear you sneer, because public and private officials all over India are focused on nothing else but the fruit, more fruit, and yet more fruit! As I look through my broken windowpane into the world, and recall the endless pain that money and greed has wrought the world over, I can picture Transistor’s voice getting scratchier, Good Shot well dressed as usual but tongue-tied, and Choach rolling his eyes heavenward, glancing at the Don, wondering when in Heaven the umpires will step in.

Shyam Bhatya

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real-life characters noted above is neither coincidental nor concocted. Boarding school students from the Himalayas or elsewhere might want to share their fond memories of school on this site, if they wish. Go ahead, amigo, make my day!

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